I have so many notes on Jessica Valenti's Why Have Kids that I could probably write about five blog posts about it. I'll spare you that and try to stick to one post, but highly encourage you to check the book out for yourself.
Valenti addresses a lot of myths and issues regarding having children that people tend to ignore. Despite the title, it isn't a book telling you that you should have kids, nor does it argue the opposite. She draws on her own experience as a new mom and the cultural constructs and lies about motherhood she's encountered. It's a book that challenges societal norms and pushes you to think. She admits the book will likely make the reader angry because of it's discussion of controversial topics.
Valenti's main focus is the way we lift up motherhood in our culture, that we say it's the most rewarding, challenging job out there and we pressure women to be the ideal mother. All of these things may be done with good intentions, but they harm all of us. By lifting up motherhood above all else, we denigrate fatherhood and any woman who can't or chooses not to become a mother. Why even both going to college or having a career if being a mother is the best career? Why encourage our daughters to do anything else? We also pressure women to be everything for their kids, putting unnecessary stress on the woman to do everything right and creating overly coddled kids at the same time.
I can see this in my friends - the Facebook posts about making organic baby food; taking their kids to various lessons in gymnastics, Chinese, art, music, and more; bragging about their kids asking for broccoli and hummus instead of junk food or even fruit; constant updates about their potty training progress and every minute detail of the child's life with no updates about them, as though they don't exist as a person outside of their children anymore. I don't mind the posts about their kids and understand that's important to them, but often it feels like a competition and I picture the pressure that most put on the other moms. That must make them feel guilty for making their own baby food, for using disposable diapers, for working, etc. They also seem to compete about having a natural childbirth - how does that make someone who has to have a C-section feel? Valenti writes about how other moms feel perfectly comfortable giving her advice and strangers will berate her for not breastfeeding. Why do women do this to other women? It's dangerous.
One of the many dangers is that as a society, we promote certain ways of mothering that might be feasible for an upper-middle class woman with a supportive husband and, if she works, a flexible and supportive employer, but aren't possible for poor women. For example, we berate women who don't breastfeed, to the point that many hospitals no longer provide free formula as a gift or discuss any options but breastfeeding. If you don't breastfeed, you are portrayed as not loving your children enough to do what's best for them. However, if you don't have a job where you can pump and you work long hours, and don't even get much of a maternity leave since it's unpaid and you need the money, how are you supposed to breastfeed? Should we really look down on women in that situation? And what about the women who can't? Valenti shares the story of one woman who tried but couldn't do it. People told her that she wasn't trying hard enough or it would have worked. Valenti herself struggled with it, pumping for five hours a day after her daughter was born prematurely. She built up a supply, but it wasn't enough and she couldn't keep up and tortured herself trying to make it work. Why? How is that helping anyone?
She also writes about how women's health is often considered only in terms of how it affects child-bearing. The CDC issued a statement advising all women of child-bearing age to take care of their "pre-natal" health for their future children. Should the woman not take care of her health for her own sake? What if she doesn't plan to have kids or can't have kids? Does her health not matter? I'm not suggesting we not promote pre-natal care, but it seems odd that the CDC would promote it but not women's health in general. I once had a doctor give me a lecture about not being so focused on my career and how I need to go ahead and have kids now and even after I insisted I don't want kids she prescribed me pre-natal vitamins. Needless to say, I don't go to her anymore. The experience was so frustrating - she wouldn't listen to me and assumed she knew me better than I know myself. I'm not the only one. It's extremely rare to find a doctor who will perform sterilization treatments on a woman if she doesn't have kids already. They insist she will change her mind. I get that because of potential lawsuits, doctors are hesitant. However, a man doesn't have the same problem. Nearly any doctor will perform a vasectomy on a young man. So, the young man won't change his mind, but the woman will? The doctor knows better than the woman, but not the man? How is that right?
Another frustrating issue with our society is how we view fatherhood. The Census Bureau - in 2010 - considered mom's time with kids as parenting time and dad's time with kids as childcare - the same as a babysitter or daycare. What??? How is that right? Dad's time with the kids is just as important as mom's and both should be considered parenting. We shouldn't celebrate when a dad actually spends time with his kids - that should be the norm. And women are the cause of most of this. They don't make their husbands participate and complain about how they don't do things right when they do try. I see this all the time - women complaining about their husbands not doing things and then complaining they didn't do it right when they do try. I just don't get it. Ryan and I have always split chores and now that he's going back to school, he does all the chores. Once he starts working again, we'll go back to splitting things. I just don't understand why everyone doesn't do it that way.
One of the scariest parts of the books is the section where she talks about new laws regarding investigating miscarriages. Several states have tried to or have passed laws saying that miscarriages must be investigated to see if the woman intentionally caused them. Yeah, that's what a grieving mother needs - the cops questioning her about if she caused it. I've had several friends who have miscarried and I hate to think about them dealing with that. She also tells the story of a woman who had a C-section and wanted to have a vaginal birth with her second child. No doctor would agree, so she found a midwife and planned to have the baby at home. While in labor, she needed an IV. They found a hospital that agreed to administer the IV. After she was there and on the IV, the hospital asked her to sign papers agreeing to a C-section. She refused and went home to have the baby. While in labor in her own bedroom, the deputy sheriff and state attorney arrive and physically force her back to the hospital to have the C-section against her will. She then sued the state and lost. Seriously???? This story makes me so angry! The labor had progressed to the point where it was almost in the birth canal before the C-section and wasn't in danger. How can the woman have no say over what happened to her? How can we allow that?
Most of the book got my blood boiling, especially the story above. The one thing I liked was parts about women who don't have kids being happier, and how smart women are less likely to have kids. :) You're also less likely to get divorced if the woman works and the man shares in the housework. All of that bodes well for me. It also challenges our beliefs that you have to follow the traditional path. Why must we assume everyone will get married, have kids, that everyone wants those things? Why do we tell women who don't want those things that they will change their minds or regret it?
There is so much in this little book and I barely scratched the surface here. I know I haven't done it justice, but I hope you'll check it out for yourself. I did not agree with a lot of Valenti's solutions - I'm a libertarian and most of her solutions involve increasing government involvement - but I love that she raises a lot of questions about our cultural constructs and encourages people to challenge them. I think this book would be extremely helpful for someone considering having kids or who has kids and wants to not feel so alone about some of the issues she raises. And for me, it added to my already strong desire to not have kids.